Look, but Don’t Touch: How Biometric Scans Reimagine Identity

Biometric solutions increase convenience, but they're also raising fears about surveillance and privacy. We explore the issue from both sides, and ask: what would you do to skip the line?

biometric scans
Photo: Amanda Dalbjörn via Unsplash

Let’s face it: by this point, you’ve had a nightmare about lines. If you haven’t, you’ve at least lived it—after all, what’s more terrifying than waiting for a COVID test? What about trying to get through crowded airport security during the holidays—especially during a pandemic?

That’s where CLEAR comes in. The New York-based tech company allows users to quickly and seamlessly verify their identities with biometric scans—tests that can identify distinct physical and physiological characteristics, including facial features, fingerprints, retinae, and voice. CLEAR’s technology is completely touchless, translating users’ eyes and faces into unique encrypted codes. It can also fully digitize wallets by converting IDs, payment cards, and other documents into touchless IDs. CLEAR’s goal? To make your life quicker, easier, and cleaner. 

The biometrics space isn’t new. As the world grows increasingly digitized, navigating daily life has become easier and faster—all thanks to the technology that drives it. Aware, another biometrics provider, offers identity-driven account enrollment and multi-factor identification, as well as biometric time and location authentication for cloud-based services. SITA Smart Path, like CLEAR, uses face scans to streamline the flying process, allowing users to speed through check-ins, bag drops, security checks, and boarding. 

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Biometrics offer convenience, productivity

In a growing market filled with increasingly advanced biometric solutions, how has CLEAR managed to make a name for itself? It’s simple: by transforming convenience into a wholehearted promise to—and about—the individual. While cutting the line at Yankee Stadium is a decidedly attractive perk, having a more productive day—without even thinking about the tedium of waiting—is even better. 

“CLEAR makes you unstoppable,” its homepage declares, fully embracing its prospective users as vibrant, energetic individuals. Its How It Works page follows suit: “You’re the perfect person to verify your identity.” CLEAR’s recently released Health Pass, a free feature in its mobile app, stores users’ COVID testing and vaccination information in a single, easy-to-access place, streamlining entrance checks at offices, show venues, and gyms—anywhere that requires COVID-specific verification. The feature’s tagline? “Health Pass gets you back to what you love.”

Scared of surveillance? You’re not alone (ever)

What’s a little extremely personal data—our own faces and bodies, completely exposed—for some unprecedented convenience? 

For many, privacy—and the threat biometric scans pose to it—is a pretty big deal. In August of 2019, BioStar 2, a security platform with biometric capabilities, suffered a massive data breach that leaked 28 million records belonging to more than 1 million people. Users’ fingerprints, facial recognition data, and photos were exposed, thanks to an unprotected database. The client database of Clearview AI, a facial recognition company, was also hacked, compromising the data—including 3 billion images of faces, gathered and stored without consent—of its users. 

Beyond major data leaks, which are relatively rare, fears concerning clandestine data collection are on the rise. In 2015, CLEAR presented troves of user data—from the exact times game-goers arrived at stadiums to specific kinds of credit cards they used—to Los Angeles International Airport. Although CLEAR didn’t proceed with the plan, many are hesitant to embrace data collection and monetization, fearing the rise of mass surveillance.

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Prioritizing data privacy and security

CLEAR wants the world’s trust—after all, its entire operation thrives on it. The company acknowledges as much: “Our business is built on keeping your data safe, private, and secure,” a block on its homepage reads. Interestingly enough, its website doesn’t dive any deeper into the topic; the only proof of data privacy it offers is “SAFETY Act [certification] by the DHS [Department of Homeland Security].”

Maybe more information isn’t necessary. CLEAR’s core messaging is about elevating the individual—and at the core of that is trust. By harping on the minutiae of user data protection, CLEAR could inadvertently trigger some prospects’ existing anxiety, or even turn open-minded individuals into skeptics. (That’s not to say the company doesn’t have protective measures in place, though. According to its privacy policy, CLEAR does not share, sell, or rent any user information without obtaining consent.)

Thanks to the pandemic, it may be able to sidestep the issue altogether—or at least downplay its seriousness. According to an International Air Transport Association survey released this year, a whopping 73 percent of airport passengers are willing to undergo biometric scans to speed up airport processes, compared to just 46 percent in 2019. CLEAR’s success reflects this growing acceptance: its biometric screening technology has been implemented at more than 50 airports, stadiums, and venues around the country. Biometric scans can streamline any time-consuming process involving identity verification, giving it the potential to revolutionize society as we know it—all that’s left to do, CLEAR has shown us, is earn the world’s trust.

Advancing the way people live 

One of the company’s core values is “EMBRACE CHANGE.” Emblazoned on the top of its About page, these words are necessarily all caps—a shout from and into the future, drowning out the old ways of life. Before CLEAR, life was slow, inefficient, and—as we now know—riddled with unnecessary germs. Clearly, there are better ways to live. 

Those nightmares about never-ending lines? CLEAR wants you to demolish them. Your face can be reduced to a bunch of ones and zeros, but those numbers are uniquely yours. They let you do the things you want—whenever you want. At the end of the day, CLEAR’s messaging isn’t about waiting in lines or digging around for credit cards—it’s about you. For many, that’s a dream come true. 

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Melissa Ho

Melissa Ho

Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, Melissa moved to New York to study economics and art. Her biggest passion, writing, led her to MarketSmiths, where she crafts precise and thoughtful copy that leaves a lasting impression on its audience. Outside of the copy world, she attends poetry readings, visits contemporary art exhibits, and dabbles in ballet.

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